THIS week saw apartheid media firm, Naspers in the news with a fresh scandal, large enough to top any previous peccadillo. The sheer amount of opinion pieces generated by South Africa’s media, and the scale and tone of the inquiry into the press is quite impressive. It marks a turning point insofar as a shady history of decades long immunity from criticism is concerned.
At first, the opposition Democratic Alliance, once staunch allies of the firm, but now in a marriage of convenience with the EFF, sought to buttress growing metro and provincial leadership by exposing what appears to be another influence peddling scandal.
The story was quickly picked up by technology and business sites, Business Tech “R100 million influence” MyBroadband “diabolical and secret R550 million” and Business Live “sabc greasing”, showing some disparity in the figures and eliciting Hlaudi counterspin from IOL and a series of Alec Hogg advertorials on Moneyweb “reports malicious” “Naspers not concerned” and also Business Live “not involved”
That Multichoice is involved in a number of corrupt political deals harks back to the founding of the pay channel company under Naspers director PW Botha. The story is not unique so far as this outlet is concerned.
The company simply moved from state capture under the National Party, to state capture under the ANC. All documented here. Massive pay-offs to those in power with the ability to make decisions, appears to have been the norm. Significant too, are the latest attempts by Naspers subsidiary Media24, itself involved in a variety of scandals, to dodge the broader implications of its boardroom being interwoven with a “corrupt nexus” involving Multichoice, to use former editor of the Weekly Mail and adjunct professor of journalism Anton Harber’s term.
Harber who recently moved from his academic post to eTV, an entity itself involved with Multichoice (via Remgro and Kagiso), a little out of character but unsurprisingly given his recent tenure, appears to have equivocated on the issue by writing what can only be termed a Daily Maverick fluff piece in defence of Naspers, urging the company to face up to the charges while painting a picture of an apartheid firm which miraculously transformed itself.
The piece is unfortunately devoid of facts and appears to ignore my own case against the company, and thus the belated apology issued by CEO Esmerie Weideman. Advertising agency executive Deon Wiggett wasn’t having any of this. The founder and creative director of Fairly Famous, “a progressive advertising agency” didn’t buy the spin doctoring and produced what can be called the best roasting of Koos Bekker in the press yet.
The Naspers board issued a statement, proclaiming their 80% owned child to be autonomous, with their shared directors ring-fenced on paper by the law, while major Naspers shareholder Sanlam issued a similar denial of responsiblity. Bob van Dijk’s “its not our problem” defence in this regard can only be described as bizarre.
US law firm Pomerantz announces it is investigating Naspers on behalf of Paypal investors, for securities fraud.
HOW the memory plays tricks. Not so long ago, Terry Bell, the self-styled labour correspondent who started out at the Independent Group, where he failed to cover any labour disputes involving his bosses, was praising the political dispensation.
Now that he has found a home at Naspers subsidiary Media24, where he once again fails to cover any cases involving his bosses, Bell has taken to writing obscure tracts on state capture and ‘Die Broederbond’.
Perhaps a sign that Bell still has some spine left and could be coming round to Medialternatives’ own exposé of the cartel that is key to understanding state capture of the media and vice versa? (See post here and here)
We certainly hope so.
In a piece published on Bell’s website and ironically also carried by News24, Bell writes about an inquiry during the Verwoerd period, to investigate secretive societies such as the “Afrikaner Broederbond (AB), the Freemasons and the Sons of England”.
In particular he writes about the “exposes (sic) by the brilliant investigative reporter, Charles Bloomberg that revealed that the secretive AB cabal was making the real decisions about the future of the country; that parliament was merely being used as a rubber stamp.”
The inquiry makes an interesting analogy: “Unlike the present allegations of attempts to capture existing state machinery, the first state capture, by the AB, came about through the steady infiltration of leading sections of the Afrikaner nationalist establishment. Over nearly 30 years, leading Afrikaner politicians, academics, religious leaders and educationalists, were recruited to the AB with the object of eventually seizing control of the state and all aspects of society.”
If this doesn’t get your goat, then Bell’s relating of the Teljoy saga (really a prequel to the later Naspers-Multichoice debacle under the regime of PW Botha) definitely gets our blessing, as a piece of apartheid controversy crucial to understanding media today.
“A number of powerful AB members had financial stakes in an embryonic television hire company, Teljoy. This company became South Africa’s leading television and VCR rental organisation with significant interests in cellular telephony. Political modernity had again found its justification in the marketplace.”
“The charade, which then followed, was a classic of its kind. John Vorster appointed an official commission of inquiry into whether and when South Africa should introduce television. The commission was chaired by Broeder 787, Piet Meyer, who was simultaneously head of the national broadcaster, the SABC and of the AB. Eight of the other 11 members of the commission were also AB members while a ninth was a National Party senator. But the 12 commission members merely constituted the public face of the process. As soon as the inquiry was announced, the Broederbond notified its cells and canvassed the opinions that would really matter.”
SOUTH AFRICANS won a massive victory for communications freedom when we saw the inclusion of the right 16(1)(b) which practically squashed anti-piracy litigation of the kind, contemplated by MIH Multichoice for nearly twenty years. Attempts to prohibit users from sharing information have met with limited success.
The company released a statement last week, attacking the lawfulness of receiving information via data-over-IP:
“MultiChoice will be appointing a Cyber Piracy Investigator who will aggressively go after South Africans who illegally download and share local and international TV content.” The group has already posted job notices for a cyber-snoop who would aggressively monitor Internet users, without a court order.
The issue here isn’t the sale of illicit copies by commercial interlopers, it is a clampdown on the general right of access to information by users in the form of data-over-IP.
Access to Information over the Internet is a right guaranteed by our constitution.
Article 16, is a constitutional covenant (not a privilege), enabling media and press freedom which contains the all important (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. Inalienable rights that are of increasing importance so far as the Internet and access to information is concerned.
Information rights, enacted during Nelson Mandela’s Constituent Assembly, make South Africa one of the most Internet-enabled and digitally-friendly countries. The Bill of Rights is very progressive (some might say radical), on issues related to civil rights, personal freedom and digital access. At least this was the intention so far as the founders of the country’s Bill of Rights were concerned.
During the tumultuous and important period of the drafting of our nation’s Bill of Rights during 1995 and 1996, I actively campaigned for lawmakers to put the right “to receive and impart information, as well as ideas”, i.e. communications freedom and cognitive liberty, into our constitution. The campaign built upon earlier civil rights campaigns, both off-and-online.
I had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area, having launched a landmark, online campaign of electronic civil disobedience (ECD). The campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill (a nasty piece of UK legislation outlawing outdoor dance festivals and music with a repetitive beat) which banned open-air raves as they were called, had met with limited success, but set the stage for further ECD campaigns, and featured in a digital history timeline of the Internet, as a first experiment with the electronic medium, so far as activism (and hacktivism) was concerned.
Communications Freedom and the Right to Privacy were thus at the top of our bucket lists, as local hactivists and netheads such as Stephen Garrett and others, (I include myself here), openly canvassed Jay Naidoo, and then Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Pallo Jordan and others. Thus several events on Net Rights issues were held at South Africa’s very first Internet Cafe in Long St, Cape Town.
The inaugural Net Democracy event was soon followed by sessions on Net Rights and other Digital topics.
The papers of the day record: “An Internet Relay Chat (IRC) the first between a cabinet minister and the public, took place in the City today” …”More than 120 people from around the country, asked [the Minister] questions about the Green Paper on Telecommunications.”
The atmosphere of tolerance and openness two decades ago, contrasts strongly with the secrecy and paranoia of the government of today. To compound the problem of the erosion of net freedom, is the manner in which corporations are now taking centre stage of the digital rights debate in our country.
The latest move by Multichoice is really an affront against all digital rights activists, it is nothing less than an attempt to alienate the principle of information freedom and sharing of information, delineated as the ‘right to receive and impart information’, enshrined in our Bill of Rights. In the process casting users as “thieves” in a victimless crime where the owner of copyrighted material is left, still in possession of property, but without a potential royalty payment.
The current Cybercrime Bill before parliament, (which I have already written about in an Op Ed published by the Cape Times), violates key features of the constitution, including the right to due process. The ruling party currently does not have the necessary 2/3 majority needed to pass such draconian legislation, and even if it could there are several checks and balances so far as this process is concerned. The only way that one could ever reasonably enforce the kind of cybercrime laws presently contemplated under several new pieces of Apartheid-style Information legislation is by redrafting the Bill of Rights, in particular the clause referring to which rights are considered derogable (non-absolute) and which are not!*
Multichoice, a pay-television corporation which gained prominence, having emerged with a monopoly concession from the PW Botha regime, now seeks to pre-empt the legislation currently being debated in our National Assembly. Demonstrating open contempt for the legislature, the company is steaming ahead with an extra-judicial redrafting of the Bill of Rights, in the corporation’s own image. This is so it can maintain a monopoly over information in South Africa. Earning enormous profits by denying citizens access to information freely available online.
Most national and international television networks are freely available on the Internet. Al Jazeera for instance, streams over the Internet for gratis. Multichoice however, packages these free channels as part of its bouquet of services, for which users pay a fee.
The company has already begun to spin the story, as a first step to “monitoring of torrent sites”, all in keeping with copyright law, but this ignores the fact that many people use torrents to download free and open-source software.
In terms of the litigation and aggressive policing contemplated by Multichoice, simply watching Youtube Video and other online activities, could result in jail-sentences. Educational videos and streaming of documentaries will carry penalties which penalise students and those least able to afford education.
The torrenting, downloading and streaming of information will become grounds for suspicion of illegal activity. Merely using a computer could have unintended consequences so far as monitoring and enforcement is concerned.
The Multichoice concession, created during the apartheid regime, runs against the principle of freeness and inclusion of citizens needs so far as access to information and the Bill of Rights is concerned. Instead of sacrificing information rights to the corporation, the concession should be abolished in favour of flat-rate billing for data.
*NOTE: Non-Derogable rights are those which are considered “peremptory norms” under international law and thus absolute, they need to be distinguished from other derogable rights, which although no less important, since they are inalienable and cannot be taken away, are not considered absolute and thus are open to judicial interpretation. The degree to which rights in our Constitution are open to such interpretation is the basis for considerable debate amongst scholars.